Ask, Don't Tell

Giuliani's suppressed report on homeless youth

A report that has been hidden from the public for two years by the Giuliani Administration detailing the dire needs of homeless youth in New York City— and the administration's inadequate response to those needs— was obtained by the Voice last week. The findings have never been published.

The 1997 study— which was commissioned by the mayor's office— was suppressed after its author, medical anthropologist Michael Clatts, appeared on NPR in April of 1998. The report was mentioned by WNYC reporter Beth Fertig during the broadcast.

Daniel Tietz, an expert on homelessness who selected Clatts to do the study for the Giuliani administration, says that the next day, "The mayor's office called me and said that if Clatts talked to the press again, he would not get any work with any city agency again. They made it clear that they would go after him and seek damages."

Ali Forney at safespace in 1994, two years before being murdered
photo: Meg Handler
Ali Forney at safespace in 1994, two years before being murdered

The mayor's office would not return phone calls. Though the administration has suggested in the past that the report was flawed, it has never said why it was suppressed. But advocates for homeless teenagers think they know why. "Giuliani's political aspirations are such," says Margaret Brennan, executive director of the AIDS and Adolescents Network of New York, "that he just doesn't want to have any embarrassing information come out— such as not having met the needs of this large and growing population."

Among the report's findings:

  • The study cites estimates of "15,000 to 20,000 homeless youth in New York City." But "the current system of 191 beds in emergency settings, and 317 beds in transitional settings, provide only a fraction of the number necessary to house all youth in need of shelter."

  • More than half of New York's homeless kids under 21 are from the city's own low-income neighborhoods and nearly two-thirds are black or Latino.

  • More than a third of 432 street youth surveyed earned money through prostitution. More than half of the young people interviewed considered it " 'somewhat likely or very likely' that they would get AIDS."

  • Many programs for homeless teens are ill-equipped to handle the variety of problems they face: "Of the 16 residential programs listed in a directory of NYC adolescent drug treatment programs, 9 could not accept a pregnant youth, 11 a MICA 'medically ill chemical abuser,' 14 a suicidal youth, 10 a violent one, and 8 a cross-dresser. Many street-dependent youth can fall into at least one of these categories."

  • Foster care, overseen by the city's Administration for Children's Services, "is often the first and only housing option for thousands of youth who become homeless as a result of family-wide homelessness, deaths of parents, or parental abuse or neglect." But "ACS has closed nearly 400 group home beds since 1995, resulting in a severe shortage of available beds, especially for teenagers entering the system."

    Tietz says he commissioned the report from Clatts because Clatts, who did not return Voice calls, had studied homeless youth extensively and had an "international reputation" for his work with street kids. At the time, Tietz was an administrator with the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health, which has a number of city contracts to produce social-service studies. He is now with Housing Works, the AIDS service nonprofit that is embroiled in a long-standing battle with the mayor. He remains dismayed that the administration has suppressed the study, entitled Needs Assessment: Services and Housing for New York City's Homeless Street Youth with HIV/AIDS. Adds Brennan, "Having read the report, I didn't get the feeling the city was being vilified. The report offered a lot of helpful suggestions. If the city was really interested in meeting the needs of this population, they could have had a serious examination of this report and then thought about developing a plan to help homeless kids."

    Some of the report's findings have been disputed by the mayor in other forums. The mayor's preliminary management report for 1999 says the city is slated to provide services for 2200 homeless and runaway youth. City officials have repeatedly stated that it's impossible to count the actual number of street youth. But, counters Brennan, "That's bullshit. They don't want to find them because then they would have to provide services for them."

    In the year since the study was suppressed, advocates say, the situation for homeless kids has become worse. "Our outreach program sees at least 3000 kids a month throughout the city," says Carl Siciliano, program director at SafeSpace, a drop-in center and shelter for homeless kids. "In the past six months alone we've seen 436 new faces."

    George Moore, a nurse and HIV specialist at Covenant House— the largest homeless youth shelter and service provider— says he's also seen at least 400 new faces come through the medical clinic in the last six months. Although it holds the lion's share of the shelter beds in the city (even the NYPD's Homeless Outreach Unit brings the 18- to 21-year-old homeless kids it finds to Covenant House's shelters), Covenant House receives less than 5 percent of its funding from the city.

    "There's no doubt in my mind there's a lack of services [for homeless youth] in New York City," says City Council member Kenneth Fisher, chair of the Youth Services Committee. "It's not an easy population to provide services for, and it's largely invisible. There was an inadequate number of shelter beds, medical facilities, and counseling centers before 1998, and it hasn't gotten any better."

    The city has increased funds for homeless families in the past few years. However, money for runaway and homeless youth programs has been stagnant, or in some cases has decreased. This fiscal year, for example, the city cut $308,356 earmarked for "runaway crisis beds," says Paul Lopatto, spokesperson for the Independent Budget Office.

    Likewise, since 1995 Giuliani has attempted to cut all funding for preventative programs directly targeted at homeless teens, such as the Juvenile Prostitution Diversion Program. "Every year Giuliani cuts these preventative outreach programs in his budget proposals," says councilmember Stephen DiBrienza, "and it's up to the council to restore them." DiBrienza says it's been impossible to get more money "when you have to fight just to keep the current money. But you don't see him cutting funding for midtown development."

    Many advocates for the homeless say that Giuliani's other policies have also directly affected homeless youth. The mayor's "quality of life" crime sweeps through the 42nd Street area in 1996 displaced thousands of homeless kids and teen prostitutes from Times Square, says David Nish, acting director for Streetwork, an outreach program that offers showers, medical services, and counseling to street kids.

    "It created a very hectic situation and it still has impacts," Nish says. "We are trying to find where the kids are on a daily basis. They moved to areas in Brooklyn or Hunts Point in the Bronx or near the Queensboro Bridge. I think they felt a real safety in knowing each other on the streets. And it's very dangerous on the streets."

    Nish mentions three murdered young people to emphasize the perils of street life. Ali Forney, Kevin "Kiki" Freeman, and Dion Webster were all familiar faces at Street Works as well as at the SafeSpace shelter. All three were young, transgendered prostitutes who picked up tricks near Times Square. They left the Times Square area after the 1996 crime sweeps. All three started prostituting uptown around 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue or 130th Street and Fifth Avenue, areas said to be much more dangerous. By the end of 1997, all three had been murdered.

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